Tearing down vs holding up

Tearing down vs holding up

I think this is one of the most powerful moments in David Suchet’s portrayals of Poirot. In the 2010 version of Murder on the Orient Express, the ending was not like the book nor the 2017 version. Give the ending a listen (spoiler alert of course). Given the currently poor state of cultural and political dialog, I think it’s worth a listen. Especially now that we have people calling for active dissolution of government systems that have (in some opinions) failed us:

Hercule Poirot: [furious] You people! With your kangaroo jury, your kangaroo justice! You had no right to take the law into your own hands!

Hildegarde Schmidt: M-m-monsieur Poirot, she was *five years old*!

Caroline Hubbard: We were good civilized people, and then evil got over the wall, and we looked to the law for justice, and the law let us down.

Hercule Poirot: No! No, you behave like this and we become just… savages in the street! The juries and executioners, they elect themselves! No, it is medieval! The rule of law, it must be held high! If it falls you pick it up and hold it even higher! For all of society, all civilized people will have nothing to shelter them if it is destroyed!

Greta Ohlsson: There is a higher justice than the rule of law, monsieur!

Hercule Poirot: Then you let *God* administer it… not *you*!

Greta Ohlsson: And when he doesn’t? When he creates a Hell on Earth for those wronged? When priests who are supposed to act in his name forgive what must never be forgiven? Jesus said, “Let those without sin throw the first stone.”

Hercule Poirot: Oui!

Greta Ohlsson: Well, we were without sin, monsieur! *I* was without sin!

It’s interesting that people in movies so often ascribe all the wrongs in the world to God. Modern minds love to point to God when there is evil in the world as proof of God’s inexistance, yet somehow forget that if this proves he doesn’t exit, we’re left with the exact same conclusion: all the wrongs in this story were committed by people (Cassetti and then each of the 12 that committed murder) or the failure of our human institutions. For those that allow for the existence of God, we were created and granted the freedom we are both blessed and cursed with – to choose good or evil. Should we blame God that some will invariably choose evil? Why do we blame God when someone commits even unspeakable evil? Why do we blame God when our own justice systems fail? If you don’t believe in God, then the argument is the same, and you end in the same conclusion: that ALL these evils come from US. Evil didn’t ‘get in over the wall’ – it came from a very real person. Evil we commit on each other, not from God. Still, it’s a trope many movies love to use. It’s just disappointing that it’s not actually thought out very well in a crude poke at theism.

At any rate, Poirot is taking a very bold stance that isn’t what we usually see in Hollywood movies. One you don’t see often these days – that we must not take the law into our own hands. Instead we must commit ourselves even more to fixing our justice systems when they fail us. Greta retorts that justice is a concept that isn’t just a block of laws, but that it’s something innate to us, something we all immediately recognize. This is true! We do seem to all be born with this sense. Studies have shown consistently that children have a sense of fairness and right from a very early age – across all races, genders, and parts of the world. A person who has read Genesis would agree: if we were created to live in perfect peace and harmony, of course we have a sense of what is right in our very fiber. It’s innate to us, created in us. But since the fall, we lost our ability to live it perfectly. Some choose to ignore good completely. Unfortunately, Greta again blames God for the fact human agents have committed great evil.  She then goes on and seems to think she herself is without sin and hence ‘worthy’ to carry out lethal punishment. I’m no expert, but I bet every other person on that train that knew her could probably name a few of her failings. But worse, she claims that her own innate sense of higher justice has given her the right to become judge, jury, and executioner when temporal laws fail her sense of justice.

So what about that appeal Poirot makes to God? Is he telling us when our laws or human justice fail us, we are supposed to idly stand by like sheep and let evil run amok? Many modern minds would probably think this is what he’s saying – but it is exactly the opposite! Poirot isn’t telling them to ‘Just let God handle it’. He is telling them that there should be no crime that we in our human efforts cannot bring to justice. This is where a Catholic understanding (and Poirot was Catholic) of salvation history comes into play. God created human beings to be co-creators with God. We are given dominion, stewardship, and creative abilities over all of creation. Even non-believers can recognize humans have a unique place in all of the earth. Our minds can come up with great artistic expressions of paintings, music, and art. Our minds can plumb great depths of science from subatomic particles to the furthest reaches of the universe. We have the ability to live anywhere in the world, and even in space by our efforts. We can even generate new life by having children together. The whole story of the bible is a story of God trying to build and rebuild relationship with us. Yet he always does it in very concrete ways. He makes covenants with specific nations. He grants them land to live on. He helps them in battle. He gives them food in the desert and when Jesus feeds the 5000. Jesus cured bodily ills as well as spiritual ones. Every piece of salvation history shows that the concrete world is meant to be a part of our salvation story. And so too all the systems we have in it. Therefore, Poirot is saying that if Greta is right, that there was a ‘hell’ that was created on earth, then it is God’s pervanence to fix it. But if it is at all human, it is something in our power.

He’s setting the bar divinely high before he would believe in people taking the law into their own hands. Poirot was able to figure out this case. Namely, that 12 people that conspired to commit and hide a murder, despite its complexities. Therefore, the rule of law is able to bring justice to even this. So, his point is that when we find flaws with our justice and law, we must not discard all the sacrifices and hard-fought battles that have brought us the infinitely better systems of justice we enjoy today just because you are not clever enough on your own to bring it to proper justice. If we do not believe this, then people become self-righteous and begin to take the law into their own hands – as these 12 people did. Even when they are right in wanting to punish a guilty person – they become the destroyers of the very social fabric and justice they want. They circumvent all social agreements and demonstrate that anyone can now operate above the law based on their own judgement. This situation, if carried out by many, will collapse all of society and we’ll return to the barbarism of the sword we had before where people deliver swift and deadly retribution without answering to anyone.

But even more than this, perhaps greater than these points: Poirot has recognized what has happened to those on this train. That the horrific death of one child has destroyed 12 people. Besides the unimaginable grief, horror, shock, anger, hatred, revenge, and pain each one is in, it has also led each of them choosing murder too. Just after this scene, we see one man threaten to add another murder – the murder of Poirot – so they can all escape. “Why not?” he says, “We’ve all committed 1 murder. What’s one more?” We see all their lives torn asunder by lack of forgiveness, grief, loss, and pain. He also recognizes each of the lies they’re telling themselves to justify what they’ve done. A short time later, Poirot reveals this insight in a conversation he has in private after the above one confrontation:

Mary Debenham: You said of the woman in Istanbul that she knew the rules of her culture and knew what breaking them would mean. So did Cassetti.

Hercule Poirot: [harshly] And so do you!

Mary Debenham: When you’ve been denied justice… you are incomplete. It feels that God has abandoned you in a stark place. I asked God… I think we all did… what we should do, and he said do what is right. And I thought if I did, it would make me complete again.

Hercule Poirot: [coldly] And are you?

Mary Debenham: [long pause, then] But I did what was right.

I think we can all sympathize with the brokenness of Mary. I think all of us have felt betrayed or let down by something we trusted in at some point. Perhaps we’ve lost something that seems unbearable to lose, or experienced an evil that has utterly changed our lives forever. This does happen in our world. I also honestly believe she could have prayed about what to do and even been told to ‘do what is right’. The problem comes in this: we are often terrible at determining ‘what is right’.

We know by Mary’s response, as does Poirot, that the murder done ‘for justice’ really hasn’t helped. The loss, pain, and tragedy is all still there, but now she has murder on her conscience too. What she thought was ‘right’ has turned out to have made things even worse – for her. Sure, maybe Cassetti has been brought to ‘justice’, but Mary’s situation has remained the same. Her pain is all still there.

So what hope do we have in finding peace? What way are we to follow? In what can anyone put their trust in a world in which many feel lost or angry? This is where the Christian stands up and emphatically says, “To follow Christ!”. Early Christians were actually called ‘Followers of The Way’. When we put our trust in ‘The Way’ Jesus has taught us to live, and then truly put those teachings into action, we are promised peace. This is the harsh truth. That revenge does not bring peace. Instead, the acts of revenge are now heaped on top of all the rest of the pain, hurt, anger, fear, emptiness, etc. Instead, Jesus taught that we are to forgive those who wrong us, to offer love in turn for hate. Only by this method will Mary, or any of us, find peace after great evil has touched us. Instead of blaming God for the evil committed by our fellow man, we should find a way to bring our fellow man to justice and correction, while thanking God we have been given the means to do so: via the teachings and forgiveness of Christ!

Forgiving when we are wronged, comfort the sorrowing, compassion for those crushed by life, providing education to the uneducated, give medical assistance to those in need, to fight for justice here and trust in final justice beyond instead of trying to administer it ourselves, to give temporal care to those in need, to visit the imprisoned, assist the crippled, house the homeless, warm the cold, welcome the widow, refuge, and child, and yes, even returning forgiveness for murder are not just platitudes. They are real, concrete, and the way we find peace in the horror of evil. It is how evil is defeated, even if it wins temporary victories. Christ even gave forgiveness – as he hung nailed and dying – to the persons crucifying him.

This is what Christ taught, and the answer to “Do what is right”. In the western world, it’s also the foundation of all our laws and culture – for well over 1000 years. Despite its flaws, it’s still one of the most equitable, fair, and amazing systems in which all people are recognized with inherent rights of their human being (their creation in the image of God).

Further, God never claimed this way would be easy or we can do it perfectly. It might cost us career paths, friends, fame, or force us to confront our worst enemies with compassion. It might even cost our lives as it did for Jesus – but to what else are each of us giving our lives? As for me, I would rather give my life in service to the teachings of Christ above like popular opinion and fad activism that comes and goes like leaves in the wind every year.

I think this is a good reflection when we’re in an increasingly UN-forgiving state of political discourse in our country. We have turned to wanting to get vengeance, like these 12 did, on those we don’t agree with. So assured we’re right, and justified to ourselves. Yet the promise is the same: it will not bring back the dead, it will not fill our emptiness and hurt, it will not calm our fears, it will not bring peace. Instead, we’ll just heap new hurts on top of the old. Perhaps we should all reflect on that the next time we post on Facebook.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *